While many of us look forward to the colder months, with their promise of roaring fires and hearty food, it’s important to remember that they also bring serious health threats, including flu. Sadly, there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding flu, meaning people are often unaware how best to tackle it when they do get sick.
To make things simpler, we’ve compiled a simple guide to the flu, including how to avoid getting sick and how to spot flu symptoms.
What is flu?
Flu – short for influenza – is a name used to refer to a group of common viral infections that are most prevalent during the winter months. Although it is frequently confused with the common cold, it’s caused by a completely separate virus. Since the flu can be life-threatening – it’s important to be aware of how they differ.
While you may feel as though your symptoms are simply a ‘bad cold’ they could in fact be caused by a flu virus, and – if you are in an at-risk group – you may need medical treatment. Make sure you know the difference between cold and flu.
Groups at risk of flu
Those most at-risk are:
- People over 65-years-old
- Those with a weakened immune system
- Pregnant women
- Those with a lung, liver, heart, kidney or neurological disease
Flu can be dangerous, leading to complications such as bacterial chest infections which can in turn develop into pneumonia. It can also worsen existing health conditions such as asthma and diabetes, and can cause pregnancy complications. Each year hundreds of people are hospitalised due to complications from the flu – in some bad years it’s thousands – it’s not an illness to be taken lightly.
Symptoms of flu
The symptoms of a cold are generally coughing, sneezing, a runny nose and a sore throat. These symptoms are also common when you have contracted a flu virus, however with flu you will also experience:
- fever (high temperature of 38°C or above)
- aches and pains
- sudden onset of symptoms
- feeling too unwell to work or be active
In some cases, the flu can also cause nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea. Read our doctors’ article for more information on flu symptoms.
How can I avoid getting the flu?
The best thing to do is practise good hygiene, by keeping surfaces clean and washing your hands with soap and warm water regularly. This is because flu viruses are spread through contact with droplets expelled from the nose or mouth of an infected person.
The flu jab
Another effective way of reducing your chances of getting the flu is by getting a vaccine, or ‘flu jab’. This jab is completely free on the NHS to young children and people who are at risk of complications.
For everyone else, the flu vaccine is available privately with an appointment. You can organise this through your GP, from high street pharmacies, and via Online Doctor. Find out about booking your flu jab with Online Doctor.
Before you make a decision about whether or not to get vaccinated it’s important to be aware of a few things:
- The flu vaccine is not 100% effective. There are many different types of flu virus and the vaccine cannot immunise you against all of them.
- The flu vaccine will not protect you against other infections or colds.
- The flu jab is different every year as the prevalent viruses change annually. This means that you will not be protected against getting sick if you have received the jab in the past.
- The best time to receive the flu jab is in autumn, ideally by early November, but it can be had any time up until March.
- Usually, the symptoms of flu will clear up on their own after a week, which means that if you are not in a high-risk group you don’t necessarily require vaccination.
Read more about who should have the flu vaccine and who can have a free one in this guide from the NHS.
What should I do if I get the flu?
Most people who get the flu will find themselves affected by symptoms and feeling unwell for around a week. The good news is that usually there are no serious side effects – although it will require you to take time off from your usual activities, such as work, exercise, and socialising.
If you are generally fit and healthy it is unlikely that you will suffer complications from the flu. You should avoid going to the GP unless your symptoms progress or do not clear up on their own after a week.
Managing your symptoms at home involves resting, keeping warm, and drinking lots of water and other fluids to prevent dehydration. Anti-inflammatories and painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol can also be helpful in reducing a fever and soothing aches and pains.
Antibiotics will not have any effect upon the flu, since they are only effective at fighting bacterial infections. Moreover, the overuse of antibiotics has, in recent times, led to the development of antibiotic-resistant infections – if you don’t need them, don’t use them.
In some cases, flu can lead to a bacterial infection of the chest (symptoms include a persistent hacking cough that lasts more than seven days), in which case antibiotics would be appropriate and can be prescribed by your GP. Otherwise, you should manage your symptoms by staying at home and resting.